Water funds in Latin America

Downstream water users create shared conservation, governance, and finance schemes with upstream landowners

As the Nature Conservancy writes, “Billions of dollars are spent cleaning water, yet little is spent to prevent it getting dirty.” Water funds can change that, because they create investment mechanisms to compensate land-use that protects watershed integrity and function. As a NatureNet Science Fellow with the Nature Conservancy and Stanford University, I worked on several, simultaneous projects, connecting land-use management with downstream, freshwater flows: the drinking water that we all need. In water funds, downstream water users create shared finance, governance, and conservation schemes with upstream landowners with the expectation that conservation-minded land management will deliver clean, consistent water supplies. The creation of the Latin American Water Funds Partnerships is an indication of how the concept is taking off into action, and not only in Latin America but around the world.

Land management affects rivers and lakes: the roots of trees and other native plants filter water and prevent erosion; the rich, organic soils of mature forests store water and slow it down, so that is available in dry periods. Questions about what types of land management to do where, in order to meet freshwater goals downstream, dovetails with my primary research on salt marsh as a filter for the coastal ocean (see Elkhorn Slough, California case study). From headwaters to the sea, what do native-plant ecosystems do for our goals for water? These goals might include clean drinking water for all; replenishment of groundwater so that we are both replacing what we draw and preventing of saltwater intrusion at the coasts; and clean, healthy oceans that support fisheries.

Questions we're asking

  1. Where ought land managers do which activities – e.g., conservation, restoration, fencing livestock out of streams – in order to reach their goals for downstream water quality and flow? (Addressed by the Natural Capital Project model RIOS)
  2. What are monitoring-and-evaluation designs that allow us to understand if land-management actions are having the desired results?
  3. How shall we evaluate projects in the face of data scarcity, when we don’t have enough information before the project started – on water quality or abundance – to assess improvements due to land management?

Problems we're solving

Around the world, clean, consistent water supplies are at risk. The role of forested headwaters and the stewardship of watersheds has not been sufficiently recognized and incorporated into water planning. Understanding what types of action to take, and where in the watershed is one set of challenges to address; another is the challenge of data scarcity when we want to understand the baseline conditions of water quality and flow. Advances in models and methods are one avenue of problem-solving we are undertaking, as well as increased opportunities for connecting and collaborating between downstream water users and upstream landowners.

Project participants (across multiple projects, in alphabetical order): D.A. Auerbach, S.P. Benítez, L.L. Bremer, A. Calvache, R. Chaplin-Kramer, J. de Léon, P.J. Ferraro, J.H. Goldstein, J. Guimarães, P. Hamel, M.M. Hanauer, J. Higgins, T. Kroeger, J.S. Lozano, P. Petry, D. Shemie, H.M. Tallis, F. Veiga, A.L. Vogl

Photo credit: JL Nelson 2012, Antisana, near Quito, Ecuador